For Christmas, here’s a tiny little story set in the same world as my novel Backward Glass coming out from Flux in November 2013. It’s also a happy holidays card. Have a wonderful 2013.
Oh, and it’s dedicated to my kids, Dana, Eric and Connor.
We Never Died in Winter Yet
(a tale of the Backward Glass)
I’m going to make this simple and direct: stop using the magic time-traveling mirror.
Okay, in case this gets to you before you find what I wrote last time, I’ll start from the beginning. My name is Kenny Maxwell. In 1977, the year I turned fifteen, I found a mirror that could take me back or forward in time ten years at a shot. There are lots of rules, but never mind about those. The point is it’s dangerous. You want an example? Here goes, but it’s not going to be pleasant.
I met a guy while traveling in time, name of John Wald. He’s from the fifteen-hundreds. I also found this space inside. You go in one side of the mirror then walk a few paces before coming out the other side. Look off in either direction and there are hundreds of other mirrors. You can’t go through those or you won’t be able to come back in again. Your mirror only works for you.
Nine mirrors down from mine was one that was all bricked up. Around the bricks was a space about four or five square feet and inside that space were two skeletons. Once I learned the rules of the mirror, I figured they had ended up there because they broke those rules. Stayed past midnight on December 31st when the mirror closed, went into a mirror that wasn’t theirs. But when I asked John Wald about it, he said the story was much stranger than that.
John met Seamus Beane in that place between the mirrors that my friend Luka called the Silverlands. The boy was seventeen, born in 1830, and living in those days during the time the Irish called an Gorta Mór, the great hunger. His father was hanged as a thief the year before for trying to steal some bread. His mother took them all to Dublin after they were evicted from their farm, and lived on the streets, making money for the three of them that survived the winter of 1846 in whatever horrible ways she could. A man knifed her to death in dark circumstances in an alley one night. Seamus, the eldest surviving child, tracked the man down, and got the same knife in his own stomach for his troubles.
He woke up in a dockside warehouse where he had been taken by a kindly couple who had lost their own children. He never saw his two younger siblings again, though when he was better, he looked for them everywhere.
In his time of convalescing, Seamus learned of something miraculous happening on the docks. Early in the morning every second day or so, an angel in a pretty blue dress would emerge from a mirror hidden in that warehouse and bring them food.
Naturally, Seamus fell in love.
Her name was Nora Kearney, and she lived with her father in Boston. She was sixteen. For her, the year was 1857, seven years since her father had brought her across the Atlantic to escape the potato famine. He was a blacksmith, and doing very well for himself, but he was as brutal as his daughter was kind. When she learned that the old mirror her father had stolen from a warehouse before they boarded their ship could now take her into the past, that brutal time of starvation ten years back became her daily reprieve from cruel beatings and a life of servitude. She would wear her best dress, steal food from her own larder, and distribute it around the docks of a Dublin she barely remembered.
She fell as much in love with Seamus as he did with her, and together they used the mirror to brilliant effect. It had belonged to a well-to-do family who must have met some terrible end in the docks, because none of them ever came to claim it. Seamus could use it on some nights to steal back to that family’s manor house in 1837, happier times, and steal food and clothing for his friends.
But the thing about the mirrors is that there’s always a cost. For Seamus and Nora the cost came when her father found them out. Nora kept the mirror hidden in the cellar, but Mike Kearney heard their voices one night, and when he caught Nora with a boy, he almost beat Seamus to death, re-opening the wound the boy had from the man who had killed his mother. When Seamus fled bleeding back into the mirror, Nora’s father saw him go, and got the whole story from her. He told her that if she ever used that mirror again, he would find a way to make her pay.
Now this is where the story becomes complicated. Seamus spent several weeks recovering, and he did not see Nora in that time. Each person who gets access to the mirror can only go backwards in time, and though there are ways around this rule, Seamus did not know them. He could only go into the Silverlands and watch the rich manor that housed the mirror ten years in the past. One night, he met another boy, one from the far future, travelling through his own mirror further down the Silverlands, and he spilled out his story; a lost love, an impossible separation.
That boy in turn told Seamus a chilling thing of his own – how he had seen that mirror twenty, thirty and more years up, two skeletons trapped in a tiny bricked up space. One in the tattered remains of a pretty blue dress.
Seamus was shattered by this news. He had spoken to other children who used the mirrors, and had come to conclude as they all did that you couldn’t change what you learned was to come. He was going to go through that mirror again, and he and Nora were going to be trapped and killed by her father. There was no way out of it. It was nearing the end of the year, and he guessed that Nora must be fated to wait too late to go home, then run through the mirror without seeing that it was all bricked up inside, and that then he, Seamus, would not be able to stand the sight of her trapped inside, and would go through to die with her. No other way around it.
Fortunately, the other boy was not so fatalistic.
Should I tell you that he saved their lives? I suppose I should, though I half-way don’t want to, because as I said, the point of this is to tell you to stay out of that mirror.
I’ll tell you this anyway: A key provided by the boy from the future opened the mirror into Mike Kearney’s smithy and a bucket of water poured through put out that fire one night; and Seamus Beane found his way to Nora’s side. Mike Kearney did indeed catch his daughter with Seamus once again, though this time the boy had a set of brass knuckles hidden in his glove and he broke the blacksmith’s jaw before taking Nora through the mirror. He turned for a final word to her brutal father. “Curse you, Mike Kearney, if you brick this mirror up. Curse you with my ghost that will break through any wall and cast any brick from out my way. Curse you with my voice in your ears forever.”
But I guess Mike Kearney had no fear of ghosts that day, or if he did his hatred was stronger than his fear, because he bricked the mirror up that very night, leaving just enough space around it that someone, he reasoned, could work their way inside and be trapped.
Which is not how it happened at all.
Two weeks later, two nights before Christmas, having neither seen nor heard from his daughter since, no matter how often he pressed his ear against the bricks he had laid, Mike Kearney was awoken by the sound of metal on brick coming from his forge. By the time he got out there, a huge hole gaped. He held up a lantern to that hole, his great blacksmith’s hammer in his other hand. Perhaps at first his trembles came only from the winter’s cold, but soon he was screaming in terror.
For there they were, in the space that he had made, one in a pretty blue dress and the other in the ragged shirt of a orphan of Dublin. Still and dead in the shivering beams of his lantern.
What goes through the mind of a man like that? Is there guilt? Is there horror at what he’s done? I don’t know. But what I do know, because John Wald told me, and he had it from Seamus Beane himself, is that sometime towards morning, Mike Kearney picked himself up and then sealed up the mirror again.
The next night, it was broken open again.
And he sealed it up once more, and slept in the forge that night, so that in the early hours of Christmas day, when the sounds of the pickaxe beyond the bricks came to him, he started shouting at it, “What do you want from me? What do you want?”
And from beyond the wall, came an answer: “To cast any brick from out my way, and bring your crimes to the light of day. Think yourself so strong and clever? Then my voice will ring in your ears forever.”
The night after that, the bricks were at least four layers deep, and too much for Seamus Beane to break through.
Seamus Beane? Yes, how could it be anyone else? Seamus Beane from the winter of 1847, when twenty thousand children died in Dublin alone, so that there were more unclaimed corpses than those that could be given names. Was it disrespectful to take two of those nameless victims and put them in the clothes of Seamus and Nora? Perhaps, though at least this way they had a burial of sorts, bricked up in Mike Kearney’s forge.
Of Kearney himself, I know nothing more, and nor did John Wald, though I can’t imagine he ever spent another night in that forge, and probably not another Christmas either.
And what of Seamus and Nora? Well, they couldn’t go forward to her time anymore, and though they could have gone back to 1837 before the potato famine, they would have had to abandon the kind family who had found him in an alley and nursed him back to health.
No, they decided to stay. The couple who had saved Seamus’ life half-adopted him, and the four of them managed to find enough work on the docks that spring to pay for their passage out of Ireland to Canada. Seamus had heard it was a good place from that boy he met in the Silverlands, the one who had the idea of cheating fate by making sure that the bricked-up corpses were not those of Seamus and Nora.
That boy was Canadian. Though if you ask me, the idea wasn’t actually his. He might be the kind that goes running through mirrors and making friends, but, if John Wald told me the story right, it’s that boy’s older brother that’s better at making up plans and figuring things out. And it’s that boy’s older sister that’s good at researching family history, finding out that the name Maxwell came into the family in a funny way, through a half-official adoption in a Dublin dockside warehouse some hundred and fifty years before they were born.
Seriously, you three. Stay away from the mirror.